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In 1774, Britain had withdrawn its garrison from West Falkland leaving behind the necessary marks and signs of sovereignty. Spain, in East Falkland, was cautious in its response. So cautious that it was not until 1776 that they confirmed the British garrison’s departure. Why so careful? Because so many ships were still to be seen in the harbour of Port Egmont. But they were not the vessels of the Royal Navy, they were the whalers and sealers. This was the beginning of the first oil industry – the grease for Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
It is often suggested that the British did not return to West Falkland between 1774 and 1833 but this is a fallacy. In reality, Britain never left. With the help of the New England loyalists, British ships dominated the oil trade during this period, importing tons of valuable whale and seal oil, together with bone and others by-products. A trade worth thousands of pounds then, millions in today’s terms, the Southern Whale Fishery was the first enterprise overseen by Britain’s powerful Board of Trade. An industry worthy of protection. It also fuelled exploration to find more. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands from Cook, others would follow.
And Britain was not silent with regard either to Spain’s American pretensions, or its own claims to the Falklands, as evidenced by the Board of Trade determination of 1789; the diminution of Spanish claims with the Nootka Sound Convention in 1790 and the rejection of French demands for a place in the Falklands in 1801.
This period also saw Spain’s withdrawal from East Falkland – again leaving the marks and signs of its sovereignty. Spanish dominance in the Americas was coming to an end. An Empire that had run out of steam. Napoleon rang its death knell, forcing Spain to find a new ally – Britain.
Both Spain and Britain, when leaving, had intended to return to the disputed Falkland Islands.
Only one would.